In Sunlight Jr., Naomi Watts plays a convenience store clerk struggling to get by and to get away from her ex-boyfriend Norman Reedus, who’s taken to stalking and harassing her at work. He doesn’t accept that she’s moved on, and uses his position as her mother’s landlord (and neighborhood drug dealer) to intimidate her further. Reedus, who of course also plays fan favorite Daryl Dixon on The Walking Dead, called up Vulture while shooting the finale of that show (“It’s a very ambitious episode; they went big with it”) to chat about surviving on spaghetti, head-butting, and his wish to guest on Portlandia.
Do you see anything in common with the show, and your new film? They’re both about the struggle to survive, although under very different circumstances.
No zombies in Florida! [Laughs.] The thing I liked about Sunlight Jr. was that it felt like a very real, very honest portrayal of a family trying to hold it together. It gave you an inside perspective on a situation that felt uncomfortable to watch. That’s what I liked about it.
Did you ever read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America? How difficult it is to live on a minimum wage, to just pay for the basics — food, shelter, clothing?
I remember [director] Laurie Collyer talking about that book! She mentioned that to me. What’s interesting is you hold on to relationships and people that aren’t necessarily good for you. I guess you fall into the groove. For Naomi’s character to be stuck in that cycle, I get it. I never was in a situation like that, but I had jobs that sucked where I barely got by. I’m pretty low maintenance, and I know how to do it, but I’ve never done it in such a downward spiral, never like they had it. But I can live for two weeks off one package of spaghetti, you know what I’m saying? I was listening to a lot of Dinosaur Jr. when I was doing that. So when Laurie told me J Mascis was doing the music for the movie, I was so excited!
You should have had him do a cameo!
That would have been awesome!
He just did a bit on Portlandia.
I love Portlandia! I would do that show, in a heartbeat. I would love that. You know when Saturday Night Live did a sketch of The Walking Dead, and Bill Hader played me? He invited me to the after-party, and Fred [Armisen] was there, and I was such a big fan, I just spent the entire time trying to hug Fred over and over and over again. I think he thought I was a complete weirdo. He might be scared of me now.
I wouldn’t worry. He’s a hugger.
I’m a hugger, too. But it was literally like seven hugs, and he was looking at me like, “Again? You want to hug again?” I might have hugged him to death. But I love the feminist bookstore skit. I love that whole show. It’s awesome.
You could do a skit with Daryl walking in the feminist bookstore …
That would not go down well with the feminist bookstore ladies, I don’t think. [Laughs.]
Let’s talk about drugs for a moment. Apparently early on in The Walking Dead, they were thinking about making Daryl be a drug addict, but you were opposed to the idea? And in Sunlight Jr., your character Justin is a drug dealer.
I don’t necessarily think Daryl would have been a drug addict. There were some early scripts that had Daryl tuning in and dropping out, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play him like I grew up being around that, he was sort of embarrassed of it. But Justin in Sunlight Jr., he doesn’t take drugs. He’s a dealer. Dealers don’t take their own product. It’s just money for him, and he’s a little more evil than that. But how they both intimidate people, that’s kind of similar. Daryl is like my cat. When people come into my apartment, if I don’t like them, my cat automatically doesn’t like them, you know what I mean? They try to pick up my cat and pet it, and if I don’t like that person, the cat just shreds their arms. Daryl’s like that.
Like when he head-butted Bob?
I kind of just did that. The thing is, that character Bob, Daryl adopted him in a weird sort of way, and he understood where Bob was at. And part of his redeeming quality is that he wants to help. People don’t butt heads if they’re going to hit you. I hate that in movies or TV or whatever, when guys just start chest-bumping each other and nobody takes a swing? I don’t think Daryl’s like that. Daryl would strike first. But that was more of a disappointment than, “I’m going to beat your ass.” It’s a little bit of both, I guess. [Laughs.]
That’s why I think Daryl would be good with Michonne, even though everyone roots for Carol. Both Daryl and Michonne are in touch with their animal instincts.
She’s cute. They would have really good sex, I bet. And that’s definitely one way to blow off steam. They try to pair me up with everyone. But whatever happens, I want that character to earn it. I don’t think he’s the type of guy to go, “Come here, babe.” You know what I mean? He’s sort of a harder nut to crack, no pun intended.
He would at least be better at picking up women than Justin is. His idea of trying to get Naomi Watts’s character back is kind of pathetic and offensive.
I think Justin, unlike Daryl, has a lot of action on the side. But her character, she’s the one that got away. And that’s a door that Justin regrettably shut and he wants back in, but he just doesn’t know how. He’s exhausted all his come-on lines, so when he says things like, “I miss your ass, it’s so big,” that’s sort of a sincere way of saying, “I miss you. Please come back.” You know what I mean? It’s like a little kid who has a crush on some girl in class and punches her in the arm. Lashing out is his way of saying, “I miss you.” Both Justin and Daryl are very socially not quite there yet. That’s why if Daryl were to hook up with somebody on the show, if he hasn’t already, I don’t want it to just happen. Once it happens, it’s over. I want him to really be there.
You almost got a part in Tomorrowland, but you turned it down. What are you looking for, in your jobs away from The Walking Dead?
With Tomorrowland, there was an issue about cutting my hair. It’s a period film, and I would have played the father of George Clooney, but the haircut, the pictures they sent me, it looked like some sort of a hair croissant on the top of your head. And I was like, How am I going to pull that off? I have really long wild guy hair right now, and it just wouldn’t work. This show is my bread and butter, and it’s my heart. And I don’t want to just do a giant blockbuster that’s going to disappear. I want a film that means something, and then I’ll go back to my highly watched, super-popular television show. I’m not opposed to big-budget films, and there are certain directors that I absolutely love that do them — Guillermo [del Toro], David Fincher. But it’s a fine line. Maybe I’ll just do Portlandia! I could just walk around going, “Cacao! Cacao!”